Conservatives ecstatically greeted Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 as the opening to political utopia. They expected to occupy the government for a long time.
As Reagan's campaign advisory panels, run by such conservative stalwarts as Martin Anderson of the Hoover Institution and Richard V. Allen, were transformed into transition teams, the lists of prospective appointees bulged with the names of hopeful conservatives. One right-winger who did get a job described the transition team offices as "the friendliest place I'd ever worked in."
But in the weeks and months that followed, the fondest hope of movement conservatives was not fulfilled. While many of the movement's members and allies did get jobs in the new administration, they did not take it over. The unsteady rise of a new conservative governing elite has been marked by frequent humiliations and conflicts, betrayal and scandal.
The process began in November 1980. Shortly after Reagan's election, members of his "kitchen cabinet," the California millionaires who were his earliest supporters, and other right-wing businessmen who had more recently enlisted in the Reagan crusade ensconced themselves in the Old Executive Office Building.
This select circle included Reagan's old friend, Alfred Bloomingdale, the Diners Club founder; William Wilson, the investment counselor and one of the three trustees of the Ronald Reagan Trust, later appointed ambassador to the Vatican; Joseph Coors, the brewer and conservative financial angel; Charles Z. Wick, the nursing-home tycoon, later appointed director of the U.S. Information Agency; and Jack Hume, the dried-vegetables magnate, later the founder of the right-wing activist group, Citizens for America. These businessmen now turned themselves to the business of government, as they prepared to select the key people who would run the Reagan administration.
The original kitchen cabinet had performed a similar role in helping select appointees to Reagan's first gubernatorial administration in California. In the years since, many of the same men, joined by other right-wing entrepreneurs, had branched out, financing a wide array of extra-party conservative organizations, from think tanks to legal foundations. Now that Reagan was president, this group hoped to populate his administration with people of their choosing -- conservative businessmen like themselves, but also the new type of conservative activists who ran the right-wing organizations they had funded.
Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.), Reagan's "First Friend," acted as the liaison between this reconstituted kitchen cabinet and the president-elect. Laxalt's designated agent was Morton Blackwell, a movement activist with impeccable credentials -- youngest Goldwater delegate to the 1964 convention, director of the College Republicans and author of the 1972 GOP rules allocating delegates to the Republican convention and giving disproportionate representation to the smaller western states, thus helping Reagan.
Before the inauguration in January 1981, all of the incoming Cabinet secretaries were summoned one by one before this unofficial group to discuss their departmental appointments.
At the same time, according to Blackwell, "little cards that could fit into a wallet so no one could forget" were distributed to presidential personnel officers. They listed the necessary attributes for members of the new administration: along with integrity, competence and loyalty, commitment to conservative ideology was required.
Blackwell tells the story of a presidential personnel officer who suggested a prospective appointee to a kitchen cabinet member. "He's got a marvelous technical background," said the personnel aide.
"Is this person committed to the president's agenda?" demanded the member of the kitchen cabinet.
"I don't know," the personnel officer replied.
"Where," came the thundering response, "is your card?"
("Too many in personnel," commented Blackwell, "are not philosophically oriented.")
After the inauguration, the right-wing entrepreneurs were expelled from their Old Executive Office Building eyrie by the incoming White House chief of staff, James A. Baker III, pejoratively called a "pragmatist" by many conservatives. The federal government would not, after all, be run by a band of ideological cronies, including the California businessmen who were Reagan's oldest political supporters. And ascribed status in the conservative movement would not always be a sufficient, or even necessary, credential to qualify someone for appointment.
From the start, the conservatives faced difficulties, many of their own making. Yet their personal ambition has become so entangled with their fervent beliefs that they typically interpret setbacks, often self-created, as an "ideological assault." Reagan, in fact, employed that phrase to describe the Senate Judiciary Committee's rejection of his nomination of William Bradford Reynolds to be associate attorney general. (Reynolds' critics on the committee attributed their votes not to ideology but to their perception that Reynolds repeatedly misled the committee about his record.)
The conservatives' anxieties in the early months of the first Reagan administration focused on their factional rivals, the traditional Republicans, whose resumes were filled with impressive titles from the Nixon and Ford adminstrations, and who were securing most of the best jobs. "Nixon wasn't a movement conservative," Blackwell said in an interview. "Those of us who were hard core simply didn't have experience."
Conservatives could not rely upon the distant authority of a kitchen cabinet to transform them into a governing elite. Although they celebrated the Reagan years as a conservative millenium, they continued to regard themselves as besieged. "I often felt I was the receptionist at a home for battered wives," said Blackwell, who became the White House liaison to the conservative movement.
The principal obstacle to the movement's influence within government was its limited numbers. "We were thrown in before we were ready for it," said Edwin J. Feulner Jr., president of the Heritage Foundation. "In the fall of 1980, the movement was politically mature; policy-wise, in terms of having the policy, relatively mature; but in terms of people, an inventory of people who shared the president's views, willing to make the sacrifice to come here, we were relatively immature." So the movement had to contrive methods to gain positions and power.
From the beginning, conservatives saw their devotion to ideology as their most important qualification for appointment, not as a drawback. And because of this they have a conception of management that sets them at odds with traditional Republicans. "Back in the Nixon administration," Feulner said, "a primary goal was efficiency. The objective of Republicans was to come in and just make the machine run better." The objective of the conservatives is to dismantle the infernal machine of big government, to "implement these radical Reagan policies," he added.
"Reagan," he said, "represents the practical political side of the conservative movement. Loyalty to the movement then is a given. It goes lock step with loyalty to Ronald Reagan. He represents this in a way different from Nixon or Ford. Reagan believes in first principles. The policies he implements flow from that. He is not just a problem solver. He's an institution builder -- the network." Fealty to Reagan
Every new president brings a procession of newcomers to Washington. Reagan imported his personal loyalists from California. While these veterans of state government were conservative, they were not all "movement conservatives."
"The California connection is not specific to conservatism," said T. Kenneth Cribb, now counselor to the attorney general, a leading movement figure within the administration. "It's an operational network of those who worked for Reagan as governor." According to Cribb, these Reaganites can only be counted as movement conservatives on a "case by case" basis.
"The California group is basically loyal to Reagan," said Lyn Nofziger, Reagan's longtime political adviser. "The movement conservatives use Reagan. They put their ideology first. We put the man first."
Despite their claim of absolute fealty to Reagan, the conservatives have frequently and heatedly dissented from his administration's actions -- actions they often blame on some "moderate" appointee.
Paradoxically, Reagan has placed the conservatives close to power, yet often frustrated them. Because of his dual standing as president, with direct access to the voters, and as the preeminent conservative leader, Reagan can rely upon the movement without becoming dependent on it. The conservatives, on the other hand, need him but can't always count on him. So they cultivate the support of those close to him.
After the exodus from Washington of the kitchen cabinet, conservatives turned for support to Edwin Meese III, who was indispensable to them because of his double connection: He was a charter member of the California group and "one of us" to movement conservatives.
Meese had become active in the national conservative movement after Reagan left the governor's mansion in 1975. The former governor's chief of staff participated in the activities of the fledgling Heritage Foundation. And he helped found and raise money for the Institute for Contemporary Studies, a conservative think tank in San Francisco. (The president of ICS, Monroe Browne, received an early appointment as Reagan's ambassador to New Zealand.)
One of Meese's first acts as presidential counselor was to hire Cribb as his right-hand man. And Meese's office, under Cribb's direction, became a hiring hall for conservatives.
Cribb had met Meese through Loren Smith, the Reagan campaign's counsel. Cribb met Smith in the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, a conservative group for which Cribb served as a regional director. Among the conservative elite, past membership in ISI is an excellent credential, since it establishes one as a conservative from the days when conservatism was stigmatized as an irrelevant fringe.
Three conservative think tanks provided a reserve army of appointees. The Hoover Institution in Palo Alto, Calif., worked mainly through personal contact with key members of the original Reagan entourage. Reagan was an honorary fellow there. And its president, Glenn Campbell, was welcomed at the closed-door deliberations of the right-wing businessmen trying to manage the transition. ("Campbell is always on my resume if I want something," says a former Hoover fellow and former administration official.)
The American Enterprise Institute once defined the edge of the conservative universe when it was the brain trust for Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater's 1964 presidential campaign. After the Ford years, it stocked up on former officials, including the former president, who became a fellow. By the time of Reagan's advent, AEI had become a government in waiting. "They knew how to get in, how the government worked, without using the personnel office," said a former top personnel officer.
The Heritage Foundation, as its contribution, issued a mammoth volume entitled "Mandate for Leadership," a conservative wish-list for the new administration written by task forces of conservatives. After the book was unveiled with much fanfare, Heritage leaders pushed for appointments for the task force members. One of them was James G. Watt, who was named secretary of the interior. Watt had led a conservative group, the Mountain States Legal Foundation, financed by Colorado brewer Joseph Coors.
Inspired by the publicity about Heritage in the early days of the "Reagan Revolution," conservative activists from across the country inundated the foundation with resumes. Heritage tried to move them into the hiring process by routing them to its former vice president, Willa Johnson, who in 1981 had been appointed to the White House personnel office.
E. Pendleton James, a Los Angeles corporate recruiter and friend of Meese, became the personnel chief. He was a Reagan loyalist, but not a movement conservative. According to a former top administration official who knew James well in California, he "brought in people he knew, not Reagan people. He was never the Reagan activist." Perhaps most important, James ran an inefficient office, which was overwhelmed by the flood of resumes. Many crucial jobs weren't filled for months.
Twelve days after Reagan was inaugurated, representatives from 28 conservative groups met with Lyn Nofziger, then White House political director, to protest the failure of conservatives to win more jobs. Nofziger was sympathetic. As one administration official put it, "He'd make the case that you didn't need people with experience."
"The big problem they had," Nofziger said, "was they thought everything could be done overnight. Governments move ponderously. People who wanted in didn't get jobs right away. And people who hadn't helped Reagan but were Republicans got a lot of good jobs." Nofziger momentarily calmed the protesters, but their efforts to win control of the government intensified.
As conservatives understood it, conflicts on the White House staff between Meese and Baker over issues and jobs were a microcosm of the conflict between the movement and the "moderate" Republicans.
"For some of these conventional Republican people," said conservative presidential speechwriter Anthony Dolan, "their formative years were in the Nixon administration. They were still dealing in 1971 terms. They thought of conservatism as a pressure group, a tiny minority of the Republican Party that had to be kept happy. But conservatism is not a small pressure group, but the formative, sustaining presence in American politics. The consequence for them was fierce and daily criticism from the right."
Still, many conservatives did win appointments. And within government they acted as they thought liberals had always acted: to the victors belong the spoils. "When you get up to the policy-making level, all this business of advertising for applicants is window dressing," said a conservative who directed the personnel operation of a major federal agency. "First, you find who you want. Then you write the job description so it fits them. Then, oddly enough, it turns out to be your candidate. That's the way I hired everyone I hired . . . . You call a limited number of people you have confidence in."
But even the initial conservative successes were insufficient to achieve a thoroughly dependable administration. There were simply not enough qualified conservatives to contest for the available slots. It was apparent to many movement leaders that something would have to be done quickly to remedy the manpower shortage.
NEXT: Increasing the conservative cadres